What exactly was apartheid? It’s tempting to think of it as just like American segregation, except that those darn Afrikaners were bigger jerks who held out longer. But it runs much deeper than that. It’s closer to Palestine and Israel, or Northern Ireland. (This analysis is basically taken from Beyond the Miracle, which has been a great read on the complexities of the post-apartheid era of South African history.)

Imagine that the Native Americans were much more numerous, actually forming the majority of modern inhabitants of the US. And that, while the original English settlers and company didn’t look too kindly on them, these newcomers did not actually mandate segregation until the twentieth century. Nor did they start setting up tribal lands until then, for the purpose of letting the tribes keep some of their own government, even while stripping them of rights and control over that land (I guess some of this doesn’t need too much imagination).

By the twentieth century, keep in mind, the descendant of these settlers would have been around 300 years. They would no longer be Johnny-come-latelys, but could trace back their claim on the land for generations. Their identities would almost completely tied to the land. It would no be longer white colonists versus indigenous peoples; it is two groups of now-indigenous peoples, even if one is a bit more indigenous than the other. For example, what am I? I have some ancestors who somewhat recently off the boat from Sweden or Ireland. But I also have some who have been around for a while, to the point where it would seem more appropriate to call them “American” than “Dutch” or “British” or whatnot.

That’s South Africa. The Afrikaners have seen and do see themselves as South Africans, not as Dutch. They saw apartheid as a means of protecting what now was their homeland. After all, the settlers had one mode of government, the original natives another. Languages and customs differed. It might make sense to let the different cultures progress on their own, and that was a large part of the official rationale behind apartheid. The word itself simply means “apart-ness”; “-heid” means “-ness”, and is relating to the German “-heit” and the English “-hood” (like in “neighborhood” and “brotherhood”), while “apart” means, well, “apart”. So the Xhosa want chieftains? Fine, let them have traditional hierarchies. They can have their own “homeland” and do whatever they want with it. In return, the whites get their own areas as well.

Of course, I don’t mean to justify apartheid. If it really had been about letting cultures run their own courses, black groups would have received proportionate amounts of land, and whites would have had to give away their ancestral homes to blacks as much as vice versa. And that’s just to start enumerating problems.

But we have to get into the reasoning behind such legislation if we want to stop oppression in our own day. Yeah, apartheid seems to be obviously backwards and ignorant to us. But if we had been Afrikaners growing up in the twentieth century, would that be so obvious to us? Even Nelson Mandela talks about his shock at seeing black pilots when he visited other African countries; he, despite being an able, intelligent black person who opened up the first black law firm in Jo’burg, had a split second of doubt that a black person could fly a plane. How much more so would the spirit of the age work its way into, say, middle-class Afrikaners who never really dealt with blacks other than as servants?

But of course, if we are doing anything similarly ignorant, our views will appear just as obvious to us. People who are oppressed can’t ignore how society is bent and broken. But those of us who have privilege (such as, for example, a white middle-class American male who can take a romp through Africa for a couple years) have to search and analyze for how we might be falling into the same mistakes, how we might be making the same leaps in reasoning.



I know that I said that I’d post a book review of Call Me Woman. And I will (probably), though I think I’ll combine it with Long Walk to Freedom since most of my thoughts are comparing and contrasting the two. (And I would suggest picking up the latter at least – who woulda thunk that a political autobiography would read like a novel?) But for now, South African music!

First, I found this blog post about SA jazz: http://swingjazzblues.blogspot.com/2007/01/township-jazz-jive-south-africa-music.html. Swing dancing has been a big part of my life that past couple years, and while I don’t foresee doing a whole lot of it while in SA, it would be a fun to whip out some jazz steps to native music. In my place. When no one is watching.

I’ve also seen a few other suggestions, which I’ll need to check out more. There’s Juluka, with a sample here. Other ones suggested to me include Freshlyground (sample here) and Zahara (sample here). Looks like my ears have their work cut out for them.

Here‘s my Grooveshark playlist that I’m working on as well.

Diverse Tidbits

Or tidbits about diversity. First off, the national anthem of South Africa: it’s in five different languages. 2 lines in isiXhosa, 2 lines in isiZulu, then a stanza each in Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. Lyrics here and performance here.

Second, SA has 3 capitals. Pretoria (near where I will be training, I believe) is the administrative capital, Bloemfontein the judicial capital, and Capetown the legislative.

Where are all of those? Glad you asked. Here’s a map:
SA Map from WikiTravel
That’s a pretty big region – the size of Texas and California put together, with beach, mountains, desert, and tropics. It sounds like I’ll be in KwaZulu-Natal (Natal & Zululand, if you see references from much of the 20th century), Mpumalanga, or Limpopo (is there anyone else that can hear that without thinking of “the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River”? Or I am the only one that grew up with Kipling?).

I finished the book Call Me Woman. I’ll post more about it later. I found it interesting just how, well, non-African it seemed. I mean, the author’s sister marries a chief, and everyone has Sotho and Zulu names and what all, but I felt like an awful lot of the book would have looked the same had she been fighting for civil rights in America.


Sometimes, when I’ve told people that I’m going into Peace Corps, they mention that they are glad someone is doing something so selfless, or that it is noble of me to give up a couple years of my life, or something like that. However, when I’ve said that I’m going for skills in cross-cultural communication and understanding, I’ve been told that I should go for more altruistic reasons. But what does it mean to be selfless or not?

First, pure altruism doesn’t necessarily seem to be all that enviable, if it is even possible. Say you give a gift to a friend. Is it a better gift if the gift-giving is a chore? Of course not – the best result is if everyone involved is happy. And even “altruism” usually is for character-building and the satisfaction of empathetic feelings. More intangible goals, perhaps, but goals with oneself as an end nonetheless.

Second, it’s hard to say what “selflessness” means when the boundary between myself and the world is vague. So I’m going into volunteer work; that seems to be selfless. But I’m going in order to gain skills for myself, not just to help others; now I’m being selfish. But those skills are for the sake of a career in public service, helping others. And I am actually concerned about helping people while I build those skills. So I guess selfless again? But I want such a career because I see it as being one of the most fulfilling for myself. Selfish? But I could have chosen to be a CEO of a company employing sweatshop labor. Then again, I also think that any truly worthwhile human goal must also involve helping the world around myself. However, maybe this is only because I can only be myself once everyone around me is doing their part; I help them because I want myself to be better. …. See, it goes back and forth and back and forth again.

There is no clear line between when I am when I am just helping “me” and when I am helping “others.” So the very concept of being “selfless” is fuzzy at best. I guess I’m advocating a sort of “enlightened self interest” then, provided that we realize that there’s as much question about the “self” part as about the “interest.”

Survival isiZulu

It would be fun to be able to speak (read: butcher) isiZulu with others while I’m learning it. And we’re having a two-for-one deal today: replace “ngi-” with “ndi-” and most of these phrases work in isiXhosa! How practical! So here are some basic greetings and such:

  • Sawubona: Hi (to one person)
  • Sanibonani: Hi (to multiple people)
  • Mnumzane (or mnumzana): sir
  • Nkosikazi: madam
  • Yebo: yes, appears to be a typical response to “sawubona”
  • Cha: no (see notes on pronunciation below; this sounds nothing like what you think)
  • Unjani: how are you? (u-: you, singular, pronounced with a higher tone than the next syllable; pronounced with a lower tone, you are saying “how is he/she”; -njani: how)
  • Ninjani: how are you? (ni-: you, plural)
  • Ngikhona: I’m fine (ngi-: I)
  • Ngiyaphila: Another way of saying “I’m fine”; I think it means something like “I am living” (ngi-: I; -ya-: present tense, although not always used)
  • Wena: and you? (we-: you, singular; na: and)
  • Sala kahle: good bye (to a single person remaining behind; literally, “stay well”)
  • Hamba kahle: good bye (to a single person leaving; literally, “go well”)
  • Salani kahle: good bye to a group staying
  • Hambani kahle: good bye to a group leaving
  • Ngiyabonga: thank you (ngi-: I; -ya-: present tense)
  • Ngicela: please (ngi-: I; cela: request)
  • Uxolo: excuse me (u-: you, singular; again, make sure that the “u” has a higher tone on it than the next syllable)
  • Ngiyaxolisa: I’m sorry (ngi-: I; -ya-: present tense)

Notes on pronunciation: See this page and click on “Zulu” to hear the phrases. Stress the second to last syllable in a word. The second to last syllable in a phrase gets really drawn out, so “sawubona” sounds like “sawubooona”. Oftentimes, the last vowel of a word is chopped off, especially when followed by another word. So “sawubona, unjani?” can be pronounced “sawuBOnunJAAAni?”.

There are lots of little details about how to pronounce the different letters, which I’ll skip for now (although if the “k” sounds like a “g” to you, that’s because it does. You actually breathe in air while pronouncing it). The most important: if you see the letters “c”, “q”, “x”, these are clicks – fun! (I really want to get an African name that has a click in it.) “c” is pronounced like the “tsk, tsk” sound you make in reproach; start with your tongue at your teeth. “x” is pronounced like you are calling a horse; start with your tongue about where you would make an “l” sound. I’m still working on “q”; all sources say that it sounds like a cork popping, but I’m a bit fuzzy on the mechanics.

But the clicks aren’t the hard part. Two of them even show up as sounds that English speakers make. The hard part is putting a vowel after them. Have fun!

(Possible) State of Education

I thought that I would jot down some of the problems that I’ve been warned about going into South Africa. Basically, why would they have a need to import in an educator from America for the job? Of course, all of this is book knowledge at this point, and I may have no idea what I am talking about (a pretty common situation I find myself in). But here’s what I’ve heard, at least.

  1. There’s a legacy of something called “Bantu education,” which prepared blacks to be able to be excellent servants to those getting a proper education. (Good thing that the US was never such jerks to either people of different colored skin or to native tribes. Or that we uprooted and relocated said tribes. Or even if we would have, I’m sure that we would give them decent living conditions when they got their own nations…. Sigh, nothing like studying to show you what an a-hole you are yourself.)
  2. Since the end of apartheid and the attempt to bring educational standards up, there has been constant change in curricula and teaching methods. Established teachers are getting tired of this constant revision and losing motivation.
  3. South Africa has one of the worst incidence rates of HIV/AIDS in the world, and I will be going to provinces that have some of the highest rates in South Africa. From what I gather, many, many children are being raised by grandparents. There is almost an entire generation missing in some places.

Right now, I’m trying to balance out the pressure and excitement of leaving for PC with the fact that I am still here in the States. It’s been easy to be disconnected now, as being emotionally and mentally over-prepared to leave, even though I’ll still be in Milwaukee for another month and the US for two. I figure that if I can’t stop and see my surroundings now, I won’t be able to even when I’m in the thick of it in South Africa. Time to listen to “Snails” by The Format, then go for a bike ride by the lake.

“No Place at Ease” and New Booklist

Finally getting back to reading some of my book list, since I can only process so much more isiZulu in the meantime. I read through No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe. Great book. If you ever read Things Fall Apart, it’s the same author (actually, No Longer at Ease is a sequel of sorts; I guess the two were originally written as one draft, concerning the violence of change in Africa across generations). It’s about a man from a Nigerian village who is educated in England and who becomes a civil servant. He wrestles with reconciling his idealism, the colonial British mindset, and traditional values.

Not exactly an uplifting story, but a quick and powerful read, not least because it really makes you feel Obi Okonkwo’s struggles. But I found that even so, all of the other characters seemed to be people and not merely foils. Mr. Green has his faults as a bureaucrat, for example, but there are points in the book where you understand where he is coming from. Similarly, you can see the puzzlement in Obi’s family and village as they wonder why their favorite son seems to have abandoned them, even while seeing that this is not at all the case. Simply put, Achebe made me feel the force of the problem: there is no quick solution, no pat answer to resolving these conflicts. There is no easy “good guy” versus the “bad guys.” Of course, there is more sympathy with the African villagers than with the colonials, but it’s not like the Europeans in the book are monsters.

What’s up next? Currently I’m reading Call Me Woman by Ellen Kuzwayo. It’s part sociology, part autobiography. The author was born into an educated, rural black family in South Africa. She became involved in social work and was eventually detained under a “terrorism” act and vague charges. I’m only at the second chapter, but already it is shaping up to be an insightful and incisive commentary on the nature of oppression. A good read not only to understand South African history, but to understand how institutions can work to systematically crush people.

Of course, no book list on South Africa would be complete without Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. And while we’re at it, why not read his favorite folktales for fun?. I have another book on my list as well, but I forget the title. I’ll post when I pick it up from the library’s hold shelf.